- Caesarius of Arles and the Development of the Ecclesiastical Tithe:From a Theology of Almsgiving to Practical Obligations
Few taxes have been as enduring and as evocative of identity as the Christian ecclesiastical tithe, arguably “the most important tax in the economic development of western Europe.”1 The secular enforcement in 779 of the tithe’s collection by the church clearly marked a decisive moment in its evolution, but its earlier origins as religious law have been much more elusive. Scholarship over the past five decades has made clear that mandatory tithing to the church was not a custom of early Christianity but rather something that developed in late antiquity, with our first unambiguous evidence of a developed theory of the tithe coming from sixth-century Gaul.2 The key figure providing that evidence was Caesarius of Arles (ca. 469–542).3
The aim of this article is to explain the first crucial shift in the Christian understanding of what tithing meant, a shift in which Caesarius played a pivotal role. It was in his time period and apparently in his written sermons that tithing was first defined as a mandatory payment of a fixed percentage of income to the church incumbent on all Christians and [End Page 43] distinct from other forms of offerings. Before Caesarius, churchmen used the language of tithing only to discuss almsgiving, which by its nature resisted being made a fixed due. However, certain useful and ambiguous elements in early discourse and practice opened the way for the sixth century’s creation of a recognizable notion of the ecclesiastical tithe, which in turn opened the way for the tithe’s later imposition by secular authority. Caesarius’s sermons, as the first elucidation of a tithe distinct from almsgiving, offer us a privileged insight into why the ecclesiastical tithe was developed. Moreover, it is quite probable that Caesarius, rather than merely describing shifting practice, played an active and crucial role in the emergence of the tithe.
My argument falls into four parts. The first treats the trail of evidence up until Caesarius, pointing out both the conflation of almsgiving with tithing (as observed by previous scholars) and the desire of some churchmen for a system (perhaps similar to tithing) for regularizing the offerings of the faithful. The second section focuses on Caesarius himself, noting the practical challenges he faced as a forceful and innovative bishop. The third section delves into his theology of tithing, his argument for its necessity, and his consequent solution to some of the issues caused by the earlier use of Old Testament language of fixed dues for almsgiving. The final section briefly surveys the immediate history of tithing after Caesarius, which highlights his originality and influence in the development of the tithe.
Throughout this paper, the terms “tithe” or “ecclesiastical tithe” refer to a Christian practice of levying a fixed rate (usually 10 percent, which is the etymological origin of the English word “tithes,” Latin decimae) on all believers that was to be paid to the church to use or redistribute. This was an act of obligation, not charity. The ultimate origin of the tithe lay in the Jewish tithe, which was paid in biblical times to the Levites and to the poor, and which existed in some form in Jesus’s day.4 Christians also practiced an eleemosynary tithe, giving away a tenth of their income or of certain possessions either annually or on specific occasions as alms. Tithes (“tenths”) existed also as a rate for secular rents.5 The focus of this investigation is the creation of the ecclesiastical tithe in light of its earlier Jewish and eleemosynary precedents. [End Page 44]
Tithing and Almsgiving before Caesarius
Until the second half of the twentieth century, the story of the ecclesiastical tithe seemed simple: Christians practiced an obligatory tithe from the time of the primitive church through the Middle Ages.6 Figures such as Augustine, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and John Cassian all did indeed talk about something called decimae. However, the belief that this referred to a mandatory tariff paid to the church eroded over the twentieth century. The first tremors came from regional studies. In 1910, Émile Lesne...